Experiment on the role of suspense in video game enjoyment (Klimmt et al., 2009)

Oh! The suspense is killing me!

Oh! The suspense is killing me!

I’m reluctantly considering taking the GRE again, after hearing the advice from one of my potential grad advisor. Given my verbal score is 450, quantitative score is 630 and the writing score is 4.5, it just means that I’m at the borderline of being accepted. However, is it an indicator of academic success? Must I spend a lot of money on this, again?

Christoph Klimmt, Albert Rizzo, Peter Vorderer and company had published a small (i.e. 4 pages of text) experimental study in Cyberpsychology and Behavior on the role of suspense in video game enjoyment.


Based on theoretical assumptions from film psychology and their application to video games, the hypothesis is tested that suspense is a major factor in video game enjoyment. A first-person shooter game was experimentally manipulated to create either a low level or a high level of suspense. Sixty-three participants were randomly assigned to experimental conditions; enjoyment was assessed after playing by a 10-item rating scale. Results support the assumption that suspense is a driver of video game enjoyment.

 If more elements from film psychology are found in video games, then from the arts’ point of view, video games would be increasingly being considered works of art.

Suspense is defined, according to the affective disposition theory, as a narrative situation when an audience feels negatively valenced emotions (fear, anxiety to name a few) due to potentially dangerous, but uncertain, circumstances. The emotions from suspenseful situations would drive the audience’s desire on how the situation should resolve, either positively or negatively. To note, these emotions are not something bad, but appreciated in arousing intense emotions.

Suspense in film is created by the director, whereas suspense in video games is created by players’ uncertainty in successfully resolving a game task (i.e. a novel task, defeating an enemy, defeating a boss, accomplishing a goal within a time limit, keeping a set of characters alive, etc.), according to the lead author. Klimmt argues that players must act when confronted with a game task that has a direct relation to long-term goals (i.e. winning). If not, it would lead to undesirable consequences. Therefore, players would feel more strongly than a film audience in suspenseful situations due to players’ interactive involvement within a game environment. Interestingly, it is also argued that the repetition of the same game task is also suspenseful, since it depends on players’ performance, and it doesn’t occur at fixed time points.

A good example of a gaming episode with suspense is the stealth element in Metal Gear Solid series. Hiding from the

Did they spot me?

Did they spot me?

enemy, the player receives little information of being spotted by the enemy, thus creating a suspenseful episode. When the episode is resolve, either in good or bad, the results are immediately apparent.


Participants: 63 university students from a Los Angeles university, average age is 20.6 years (SD = 3.6). 43 females and 20 males. They participated for a 20$ compensation, the usual stuff.


Game enjoyment questionnaire: 10-item answered on a 5-point scale. Not sure I like this.

Television used: as an added feature, they decided to see if screen size might affect players’ game enjoyment, something related to spatial presence. One screen size is a 17-inch monitor and the other is a “140 cm projection screen with stereoscopic 3D imaging”.

Video game used: Unreal Tournament 2. They’ve created a map (a Middle-Eastern town) for their experimental use. They created two different versions of the same map. To facilitate the suspense conditions, players throughout the game received audio messages by in-game phone calls.

The low-suspense version is where the player is tasked to buy a vase as a tourist. In-game phone calls were made to appear that the game is that of a tourist walk.

The high-suspense version is where the player is tasked to obtain a vase that contains military intelligence as an undercover agent. In-game radio transmissions warned players of potential enemy attacks or having their cover blown.


Participants are randomly assigned to either play the low vs. high suspense condition and either the regular screen size vs. the huge screen size. Tutorial and instructions were given in-game. Play time is 15 minutes. After that, they completed the game enjoyment questionnaire.


Using ANOVA for their analysis. Players in the high suspense condition enjoyed the game significantly greater than those in the low-suspense condition. Screen size has no main effect and no interactions were found. Effect size between medium-large, although it’s a partial eta-squared. (That’s something for those in statistics).

There you have it, a study showing the first glitter that suspense has a role in video games enjoyment. Of course, more experimental studies on suspense are needed since the suspenseful video game does not resemble much to the real ones because there the high-suspense condition did not resolve in the other (i.e. the player being attacked). This study only examined participants’ perceptions of uncertainty and their expectations that bad things will come to them. Thus, the authors argued that examining more components of suspense, such as the emotional involvement within a game, will provide a more complete picture of how video game suspense fits in video game enjoyment.

A peculiar thing is their argument that a video game can be enjoyed for over a long period of time if the video game create suspense during that time period among other factors of game enjoyment.

My take is that they should improve their game enjoyment measure, a 10-item questionnaire doesn’t cut it out for me. Perhaps using some physiological measures, repeated-measures design (participants playing both conditions and ask which is more fun), different gaming genre (say RTS, RPG), comparison between passive viewing vs. active interaction with suspenseful events, and different kinds of events, such as horror scenes (thinking of Clive Barker’s Undying).

From a violence media effects perspective, if we make a content analysis of violent scenes and determine if they fit within the construct of suspense. If so, then it would mean another step in video game development and literature to create suspense without the violence and explore literary themes besides those already cover in war-themed games.

Klimmt, C., Rizzo, A., Vorderer, P., Koch, J., & Fischer, T. (2009). Experimental evidence for suspense as determinant of video game enjoyment. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 12 (1), 29-31.


4 thoughts on “Experiment on the role of suspense in video game enjoyment (Klimmt et al., 2009)

  1. What kind of programs are you applying for? I made the mistake of applying to clinical-forensic psychology (and getting accepted). But in this time (I graduated a semester early so I had the opportunity to ‘take time off’) I have discovered a love of social/cognitive psych in conjunction with interactive media (esp video games). So while im stuck in this rut trying to figure out what I can do with my life (my program begins late aug) I’m curious what types of programs I should be looking at.

    PS- the GRE is a bitch but I suggest you retake. I suppose it depends on the school you are applying to, but many don’t like to consider applicants under 1200. Good luck!

    • The first step is to take a look in the literature, do searches in the psych databases on topics related to your interests (be specific) or explore the library on books written on video games or interactive media or the internet. You will find names who does these kinds of research. Look them up at their faculty page and see what their current projects are and what are their current interests (they may change and some rarely update their pages). then look at up the co-authors of their studies if they hold the same interests.

      Second, video game research is very much interdisciplinary, go outside of psychology, there are many communications studies professors who does experiments or studies similar in methodology to psychology.

      Third, and something I’ve never done. Email those who share your social/cognitive interest, but have never done anything with interactive media. They would respond (hopefully) and if they’re very helpful give you more names.

      I’ve collected a list of researchers with a variety of interests (it’s on the right side of the blog), but all centered on video games. The list is rather incomplete…

      It’s very good in being accpected into a clinical-forensic program, unless you hate it (I’m actually scared of it), since there are clinical issues related to interactive media and video games. Primarily addiction, individuals with mental disorders use of MMOs (It just came out of my head, what happens if a non-diagnosed schizophrenic plays WoW?), web-based therapy, etc. Talk about your interests with your professors and see what kind of application clinical/forensics might have with interactive media.

      A final and rather costly step is do one independent research project (an experiment or something) and see if your interests hold after a few months. It won’t help you find what kinds of programs you’re looking for, but it would you help determine if you are ready for this.

  2. Hey, thanks for the detailed reply!

    My problem with clinical psych is that I don’t want to see everything in a negative light (it seems like us psychologists always want to find a problem).. but I guess that’s why is that emergence of positive psychology.

    I’m definitely going to look at the communication departments, as well. That was something I never thought about!

    Lastly, what scares you about clinical-forensics, is it the ‘working with prisoners’ part? Also, what do you want to study specifically?

    • It might be the ‘working with prisoners’ part, but it’s specifically the ‘psychotic part’.

      I don’t mind the addiction, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, but very scared of the psychotic disorders. I’m not going into details, but that’s about it.

      What I want to study specifically is a good question. For starters and currently (two years ago was different), media effects (violent media), acculturation media effects, culturation theory, media and child development, familial and peer mediation with video games and television, cultural differences in violent media (Japan, Canada, and the U.S.) and the study of narrative and cultural context, video game culture and its potential mediating effects, participatory culture and its effects, technological mediating effects in media effects, presence and immersion in video games, visual novels, and several more projects lying in my inbox and on the floor of my room.

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